Protestants, Catholics, and Christian-Muslim Dialogue on the Church-Related Campus
Anthony Minnema

Recent events at Liberty University and Wheaton College have raised concerns about Islamophobia at church-related colleges and universities. First, Liberty University’s President Jerry Falwell, Jr. encouraged students to obtain concealed-carry permits after the San Bernardino shootings, arguing that “if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walk in, and kill them.” Second, Wheaton College placed Professor Larycia Hawkins on administrative leave for comments on Facebook in which she stated that Christians and Muslims worship the same god. Although Wheaton initiated proceedings to terminate Hawkins’ tenure for failing to uphold the college’s statement of faith, both parties have since come to a confidential agreement that resulted in Hawkins’ resignation from the college.

Both colleges have indicated that they hold no antipathy toward Muslims, but these statements come as cold comfort to Muslim anti-defamation groups and professors at Christian colleges who engage in interfaith dialogue or might wish to do so. These events provoked accusations of intolerance against Liberty and Wheaton, but they also hint at a larger problem at many Protestant institutions, namely, an unwillingness to provide space for Christian-Muslim dialogue that might mitigate the accusations. One might argue that the situation is not the product of unwillingness, but of personnel, since many of these colleges require faculty to adhere to a statement of faith and cannot hire Muslims to participate in such a dialogue. Yet the problem seems to go deeper, since there is also a lack of Christian-Muslim dialogue at many Protestant institutions that do not require employees to affirm any faith. Furthermore, Protestant colleges offer little instruction on Islam, despite a wealth of courses on Judaism. For all the rhetoric found in mission statements regarding educating students for global engagement, many colleges in the Protestant tradition demonstrate a lack of engagement with Islam inside and outside of the classroom.

This is decidedly not the case in Catholic higher education. Several Catholic universities can boast centers for Christian-Muslim relations. They have employed many scholars—Christian, Muslim, and otherwise—to teach on Islam and promote interfaith dialogue, for example: Thomas Michel, SJ at Georgetown University, Fr. Sidney Griffith at Catholic University of America, and Amir Hussain at Loyola Marymount University, the first Muslim editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Several members of Muslim anti-defamation groups are on the faculty of Catholic institutions, most notably, John Esposito at Georgetown. What can account for this phenomenon of Catholic engagement and Protestant avoidance? The Catholic tradition has a long history of engagement with Muslims that informs a conscious decision to facilitate dialogue. Moreover, over the last half-century the magisterium has articulated a theology that provides a mandate for dialogue. Protestants, however, have little history of interaction with Muslims that does not involve evangelism, and they possess a range of theological positions that complicate, if not obstruct, interfaith engagement on campus.



It would be tempting to jump to Vatican II when looking for the origins of Catholic-Muslim dialogue, but the reality is that this interaction began much earlier. Indeed, it would be hard to overestimate the historical advantage that Catholicism has over Protestantism in this regard; it can be traced back more than a millennium. Although the Middle Ages produced durable examples of interreligious warfare, intellectual encounters between Catholics and Muslims were often more constructive than destructive. Religious houses founded in the wake of conflicts throughout the Mediterranean housed the first study-abroad programs for scholars who were attracted to the exotic learning of Arabs. The Arabic-to-Latin translations these scholars produced of Aristotle and his Arabic continuators were widely read in European universities. The medieval Christian engagement with Arab philosophy, especially within the tradition of Scholasticism, shaped the modern curriculum of Catholic higher education. Without the translations and the intellectual challenges that Arabic philosophers presented, there would be no Aquinas, whose writings are often required reading for general education courses at Catholic institutions. Though many medieval Catholic scholars stressed the conversion of Muslims, a few, such as Nicholas of Cusa and Juan de Segovia, encouraged and even engaged in a form of interfaith dialogue that remains recognizable to us today.

Just as important as these intellectual precedents is the presence of Catholic scholars and institutions in the Middle East and North Africa. Catholic universities, research institutes, and libraries in these regions can trace their lineage to religious houses that have existed for centuries. These connections had reciprocal effects. The Vatican Library possessed Arabic manuscripts since the fifteenth century and acquired them in ever-increasing numbers after Pope Clement XI (1700–1721) charged scholars with finding books from the East. By the time Catholic universities appeared in the United States, a network of scholars and institutions existed that naturalized engagement with the Islamic world and provided the material, personnel, and commitment for doing so. As a result, the last century has seen a number of Catholic scholars, religious and lay, who teach on Islam and facilitate interfaith dialogue on Catholic campuses.

By comparison, Protestants had to start from scratch. By chance of geography, the European and North American phenomenon of Protestantism was largely cut off from the Muslim world. The Protestant Republic of Letters, while strong in its study of Hebrew and Judaism, had few scholars and institutions dedicated to the study of Arabic or Islam. When Protestant colleges appeared in the Middle East in the nineteenth century, they were closely associated with missionary endeavors and plagued by an agenda that focused on exporting Western values in the curriculum. Several colleges survived to become universities (e.g. American University in Cairo, American University of Beirut, Boğaziçi University), but each one lost its Protestant identity within a century. The short-lived and Western-centric nature of these universities meant that they could offer little opportunity for engagement with Islam to the Protestant colleges of nineteenth- and twentieth-century America. The handful of non-Catholic religious centers for Christian-Muslim dialogue that exist in the United States today are at graduate seminaries and are removed from undergraduate education (Center for Faith and Culture at Yale Divinity School, Macdonald Center at Hartford Seminary, Center of Christian-Muslim Engagement at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, Center for Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Studies at Chicago Theological Seminary). Moreover, although organizations such as the National Council of Churches include many Protestant denominations and are engaged in interfaith dialogue, they are overwhelmingly clerical in their membership and focus on dialogue between places of worship rather than on campuses, Protestant or otherwise.

American Protestant academe has only recently begun to address the question of how to respond to Islam in the classroom and on campus. Attention to this matter has not arisen as the result of either a sustained and systematic effort of engagement or a desire for dialogue. Rather, changing domestic demographics and political affairs overseas have thrust the question upon them. (It is perhaps telling that the Protestant theologian in America who is most vocal in his arguments for Christian-Muslim dialogue—Miroslav Volf—is not an American, but a Croatian.) By comparison, Catholic institutions have a richer history upon which to draw. Yet history alone does not explain the Catholic willingness to engage, nor the Protestant reticence. The Catholic impulse to interfaith dialogue is a clearly articulated doctrine and not simply a product of circumstance.



The Catholic engagement with Islam has medieval roots, but the justification for such endeavors is found in Nostra aetate and the encyclical Ecclesiam suam, issued by Paul VI in 1965 and 1964, respectively. The former outlined the relationship between Christianity and Islam and encouraged Christians and Muslims to work to promote peace, social justice, and mutual understanding (Nostra aetate, 3). The latter articulated a mandate for increased dialogue with non­­‑Christians as members of the body of Christ. It noted that this activity was not new, thanking scholars who already were carrying out research on and conversations with those of other faiths (Ecclesiam suam, 31). One vehicle for this dialogue was the creation of the Vatican Secretariat for Non-Christians in 1964, renamed in 1988 the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID), which produced the rationale for interfaith interaction and provided an example for Catholic institutions of higher learning to follow for fifty years.

Two documents published by the PCID offer an articulation of the reasons for interfaith dialogue to the Catholic Church. In May 1984, the then-Secretariat issued “The Attitude of the Church towards the Followers of Other Religions.” It establishes dialogue as an essential mission of the Church, exemplified by Christ, the early church, and missionaries. As the incarnate word of God, Christ nevertheless participated in dialogue and often was silent, listened, and did not always convince his hearers. The Apostles and early Church lived among non-Christians, witnessing to believers and non-believers alike in their communities through word and deed. Curiously, the two examples of missionaries included, St. Francis of Assisi and Charles de Foucauld, are both from the Islamic world and both advocated living among Muslims in the spirit of witness and brotherhood. In all these cases, the document insists that dialogue must preserve freedom of conscience and come from a place of respect, rather than opportunism, contention, or an overemphasis on conversion. Instead, the experience of dialogue should project and foster humility, as “[a] person discovers that he does not possess the truth in a perfect and total way but can walk together with others toward that goal” (2.21). The only certainty that can be taken into dialogue is that God loves his creation, Christ has redeemed every man (whether or not they accept this), and the Holy Spirit acts in consciences as it wills.

The document indicates that dialogue is incumbent on all disciples and identifies four types. The dialogue of daily life is the sharing of everyday experiences and serving non-believers as one would serve fellow believers. The dialogue of social action is working with members of another faith for the benefit of one’s community and the world. The dialogue of religious experience occurs when Christians and non-Christians share expressions of and methods for engaging the divine. This dialogue enriches spiritual experiences through the imparting of religious practices and promotes understanding while presenting novel ways of thinking about God despite theological differences. Finally, the dialogue of experts seeks to compare religious doctrines. Such dialogues occur between specialists with the goal of comprehension and appreciation of respective traditions. Although conversion can be a goal of dialogue, the document reiterates the need to respect the consciences of others and that conversion is a work of grace. It emphasizes that dialogue is a goal in itself since it edifies both Christian and non-Christian and produces opportunities to serve God and his children.

Another document “Reflection and Orientations on Interreligious Dialogue and the Proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” was issued by the PCID in 1991 and clarifies the matter of dialogue in relation to other practices. To illustrate the difference, the document provides more examples of dialogue, namely, how the concerns of Old Testament prophets extend beyond Israel and when Christ acknowledges the goodness and faith of Gentiles he encounters before they believe. The magisterium attributes the concern of Christ and the prophets for non-believers to a mystical unity of truth and mankind. “Dialogue and Proclamation” (Sec. 18) points to Vatican II’s decree Ad gentes, which argues that “whatever truth and grace are to be found among the nations, as a sort of secret presence of God, this activity frees from all taint of evil and restores to Christ its Maker” (Ad gentes, 9). Invoking John Paul II’s discussion on the unity created by the incarnation regardless of religion (Redemptor hominis, 13), the document states that this unity extends to all human beings, who “are called to a common destiny, the fullness of life in God” (28). When Christ enters into dialogue with unbelievers, he is recognizing them as his own without preconditions. Dialogue performed by the Church’s disciples takes on a sacramental quality as the participants echo the unity of Christ with his people both now and in the kingdom to come. “Dialogue and Proclamation” encourages a relational vision of truth when participating in dialogue, arguing that “truth is not a thing we possess, but a person by whom we must allow ourselves to be possessed” (49). In this way, it is more important in dialogue to represent Christ well than to insist upon the truth of one’s beliefs.

Together with Nostra aetate, these documents represent a portion of the PCID’s efforts to demonstrate the Catholic mandate to engage with other faiths since the 1960s. The PCID also publishes a bulletin, Pro dialogo, three times a year and an edited volume of the theology of interreligious dialogue (Gioia 2006). As a result, the last few decades have seen the creation of scholarly initiatives and centers for Christian-Muslim dialogue on Catholic campuses. In 1964, Paul VI moved the Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies from Tunis to Rome, where it began to offer degrees in 1966. In 1974, he added the Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims to the PCID. In the United States, a variety of programs were started in the 1960s and 1970s that hosted interfaith engagements since their inception, with Christian-Muslim initiatives appearing in the 1980s and 1990s. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs has sponsored regional meetings between Christian and Muslim religious leaders since 1987. Formal Christian-Muslim dialogue centers at Catholic universities and colleges have been founded at Georgetown University, the University of St. Thomas, Merrimack College, and Duquesne University. The ongoing concerns regarding the future of Islam have encouraged an ever-increasing number of conferences on dialogue at ecumenical centers on Catholic campuses. While these matters certainly are discussed on Protestant campuses, Catholic institutions recently celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Nostra aetate and all the resources for Christian-Muslim dialogue that it produced.


Reasons for Protestant Avoidance

Catholic colleges and universities can draw on more than a millennium of experience for inspiration regarding Christian-Muslim engagement as well as fifty years of theological discussion regarding the virtue of interfaith dialogue. The relative absence of this history or theology in Protestant traditions has complicated the development of Christian-Muslim dialogue on Protestant campuses. Yet the diversity of Protestant denominations and their colleges makes it difficult to say precisely why this lack of dialogue exists or whether such dialogue is impossible or merely delayed. Many Protestant educators might agree with the doctrines set forth by Catholic leaders on interfaith relations and wish to coopt them; others might object to any efforts to engage in such a way with other faiths. The following are some provisional conclusions regarding the reasons behind the Protestant aversion to interfaith dialogue, particularly with Islam.

Protestant versus Catholic Conceptions of Truth: The requirement at some Christian colleges that employees must adhere to a set of doctrines points to a view held by Protestant traditions that truth is propositional. While Protestant and Catholic colleges espouse a dedication to the pursuit of truth, on many Protestant campuses the truth of theological doctrines (e.g. a Triune God, the divinity and salvific work of Christ, the validity of scripture, a commitment to the Christian lifestyle, etc.) must also be upheld by every employee, department, and activity, rather than be the purview of a theology department, chapel, or spiritual affairs office. To dedicate resources and space to adherents of other religions that contradict these doctrines could seem to undermine the Christian mission of the institution. Furthermore, the relational nature of truth in the Catholic tradition that makes dialogue possible and spiritually beneficial would make some Protestants uncomfortable. The notion in “Dialogue and Proclamation” that truth is a person rather than a possession would seem inimical to a comprehensive statement of faith or, more importantly, its enforcement. Also, the view in Ad gentes that other religious traditions participate in truth or that there is a spiritual unity to mankind could appear to deny the importance of evangelism or smack of relativism. Although the Protestant propositional vision of truth pertains mainly to colleges requiring faculty to affirm a faith statement, this sentiment could be present at Protestant colleges that do not have such a requirement.

The Absence of Central Authority: Many Catholics agree with the arguments for dialogue provided by the magisterium; others may not be convinced but support it nonetheless because it is Church policy. In this way, Catholic universities can dedicate space for interfaith dialogue, regardless of practical concerns, because dialogue is an essential mission. These initiatives arguably have paid off since Catholic institutions have avoided charges of intolerance and increasing numbers of students from other religions enroll in Catholic institutions. Protestant traditions have no equivalent authority that can provide the rationale and impetus for dialogue. The majority of Protestants colleges have yet to be convinced that interfaith dialogue makes theological or practical sense on campus. The competing voices of theologians such as Stanley Hauerwas (“The End of ‘Religious Pluralism,’” 2007) and Miroslav Volf (Allah: A Christian Response, 2011; A Common Word, 2009) indicate that the debate is hardly divided between more and less educated Protestants. Some Protestant educators might see interfaith dialogue as a way to make good on a college’s claim to prepare students for global engagement. However, in a time of budgetary concerns at colleges nationwide, any commitment of resources must produce more students or donor contributions. This is a particular problem for Protestant institutions, since any commitment that appears to compromise the Christian character of the college could produce a downturn in both. The magisterium provides a unified outlook on dialogue and the motivation for doing so even when interfaith engagement does not produce tangible benefits to a sponsoring college.

Protestantism and Civil Religion: Neither Protestant and Catholic colleges have been immune to the merger of conservative politics and American Christianity in the last few decades. As a result, these institutions are more likely to emphasize the study of Christianity and Western Civilization that fostered it than their non­sectarian counterparts. Wars in predominantly Muslim countries, Islamic terrorism, and concern over the assimilation of Muslims fuel the notion of a fundamental clash of civilizations. Rigorous teaching on and engagement with Islam at a church-related college could be perceived by conservative students, alumni, and pundits as a betrayal of American and Christian values. While Catholic colleges are not exempt from these sentiments, American Catholicism possesses qualities that resist nationalism and civil religion, namely, the international nature of Catholicism and a commitment to intercultural and interfaith dialogue.

College as Extension of the Church: Many Protestant colleges retain an affiliation with a denomination that supplies monetary support and a significant portion of students. Many denominations see their colleges as a ministry that serves its constituents’ educational needs. These colleges maintain a certain percentage of faculty, administrators, and trustees who are members of the denomination so that the institution can provide an approach to learning that reflects the denomination’s charisms. For this reason, many students and parents expect that the activities of the denomination’s colleges broadly reflect what goes on at the denomination’s churches. When a college’s activities do not appear to do so, students and parents might raise questions about whether the college is an essential expression of the denomination or is merely sponsored by it. Most Catholic colleges do not view themselves exclusively as educational ministries for and composed of Catholics. Instead, these institutions function as part of a larger ministry that reflects the Church’s concern for the wider world. Just as interfaith dialogue can be justified as a means of promoting peace and the discussion of truth, Catholic colleges and universities serve a broader goal of bringing the benefits of education to Catholics and non‑Catholics alike. Conversely, many Protestant colleges must fulfill their denominational obligations and demonstrate a Christian commitment before they address the concerns of how they will respond to the broader world.

Again, Protestantism’s diversity makes it difficult to predict the future of Christian-Muslim dialogue on Protestant campuses. There are a growing number of ecumenical conferences at Protestant colleges, such as the September 2015 conference at Gordon College, “Islam in the Classroom.” Moreover, less than a week after Falwell’s comments at Liberty, the president of Eastern Mennonite University pledged to invite Muslim and Christian leaders to discuss religious intolerance and promote non-violence. However, it remains to be seen whether these developments will produce sustained efforts toward Christian-Muslim dialogue on Protestant campuses, let alone a center for Christian-Muslim dialogue. What is certain is that Catholic colleges and universities have reaped the benefits of a theology of dialogue, particularly in avoiding the accusations of Islamophobia that recently plagued Liberty and Wheaton. In light of this, Protestant colleges and universities might soon have to choose between the lesser of two evils: be silent on interfaith dialogue and risk indictments of bigotry or make an effort at dialogue with Muslims and risk some of the faithful’s ire.


Anthony Minnema is a postdoctoral fellow in the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts at Valparaiso University.


Works Cited

Gioia, Francesco, ed. Interreligious Dialogue: The Official Teaching of the Catholic Church from the Second Vatican Council to John Paul II, 1963–2005. Second Edition.  Boston: Pauline Books, 2006. (Original published by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, 1994.)

Hauerwas, Stanley. “The End of ‘Religious Pluralism’: A Tribute to David Burrell, CSC,” In The State of the University: Academic Knowledges and the Knowledge of God. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2007: 58–75.

Volf, Miroslav. Allah: A Christian Response. New York: HarperOne, 2011.

Volf, Miroslav, Ghazi bin Muhammad, and Melissa Yarrington, eds. A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Neighbor. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.

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